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Winter Quarter '08 - English 322: The Elizabethan Age

Black Board

(See also: Assignments and Updates )


(This page will be used for miscellaneous postings over the course of the quarter)


(Click on Title to Jump to Article)

1. Humanist Knowing

2. The Metrics of Poetry

3. Reading Spenser

4. From Private to Public: Chastity becomes Friendship

5. Lovely Thoughts: Romantic Love in A Woman Killed with Kindness

6. The Elizabethan Age Portfolio Assignment

7. John Webster on John Webster: The Duchess Dies


1.The Problem of Humanist Knowing

John Webster

We can begin to understand how differently from ourselves Renaissance humanists thought about “knowing” by asking first about our own twenty-first century sense of it. What is it about knowing that makes it hard? That is not an easy question, but we'd likely begin our answer with our sense of the immensity, the unboundedness, of the task. No modern would ever think that s/he could know all there is in the world to know, or that any single person could ever even know enough to get along by themselves. This is reflected in our divisions of the knowable. In college one majors not in Everything, but only in a particular subject, and even then, although we do try to know that one thing well, still we divide up even our major disciplines, and then re-divide even those divisions. In English you can be an expert on either modern or Renaissance literature, or even an expert just on early Renaissance literature, or perhaps just on the drama. And all without loss of reputation for not being well-informed about Nineteenth Century literature, let alone electron microscopy.

So our sense of the problem of knowing, and of its solution, depends upon what we take to be the demonstrated infiniteness of possible things to know, and on how we choose to cut that infiniteness down to a manageable size.

Then consider not just how we subdivide the knowable, but also the ways in which we hierarchialize the kinds of things we know about our various subjects. At the very top of the kinds of knowing we value, most of us would place “facts”: facts about society, about people, about nature. And certainly we also value highly as a kind of knowledge “knowing how.” We want children to know how to swim, to know how to use computers.

Yet there are other matters no less important to us in terms of how we run our lives (indeed, some would argue more important) that we often don’t even think of as knowledge at all, or at best take to be less valuable as things to know. Primary among these are moral issues. I think it is fair to say that as a society we take morals to be a commonplace matter, and perhaps not even worth serious study. Though we have courses—indeed whole majors—on forestry, rocks, chemistry, writing, we don’t have any courses named “How to Live a Better and more Ethical Life.” To be sure, there are ethics courses in many philosophy departments, but they are more concerned with theory than they are with helping you decide how to make better decisions about your life. Moreover, what is studied in ethics courses are not particular codes of ethics, but rather the more general problem of what are ethics, how can one be said to know, or act, ethically. It is true that other college courses indirectly take up the subject of “How People Live Their Lives” (usually literature courses of one kind or another), but even there the subject of Life-Living is mediated by the texts one reads. We don’t read and think about How to Establish a Sense of One’s Own Identity, but about how Dickens (say) writes in Great Expectations about the way Pip establishes his identity.

Further, we also have certain assumptions about the way we know things. We privilege (generally) factual knowledge above moral or ethical knowledge at least in part because of how it is known, as well as (perhaps as much as) because of its essential nature. Factual knowledge owes itself to description, to measurement, to exactnesses of one sort or another. That sort of knowing seems to us concrete and reliable. Much of our ethical thought, by contrast, is analogical and narrative. Situation A is like situation B, and therefore we should do such and such. But in general the twentieth century has held analogical reasoning in low esteem, thinking it less valid, less “real” than “scientific” reasoning. Further, we also find ourselves uncom-fortable with moral rules and commonplaces. We live in an age of relatively and diversity, and the idea that one could make a list of rules for good behavior that all human beings would agree on seems incredibly naive. (We could probably get MOST to agree to a restriction on indiscriminate killing, but more than that would be difficult to negotiate.)

Yet like it or not, moral knowledge cannot help but be a matter of precepts, of experience, of an eye cocked, guesses made which try to bring the force of experience and commonplace to bear upon a particular action. By its nature it is a matter of “judgment,” and more often than not we guide ourselves by analogies, by metaphors--and by the narratives which underlie or are implied by them--whether we want to or not. But even if that is what we actually do, the open-endedness of ethical questions, the difficulties about being exact (or even reliably right) on such matters seem to have made us question the status of such knowing, as well as the analogical reasoning upon which it is based. Though we make ethical decisions every day, and while we may think hard about them, we are rarely very systematic about them. We tend (again, speaking generally) not to think of the process by which those decisions are made as something which could itself be a discipline, something subject to analytic and discursive thought.

Thus in planning our educations, many of us work from the assumption that a subject like chemistry or business administration is in some way more “practical” than literature, that literature (and other “pure” humanities) are good enough for relaxation, or variety, or “breadth,” but that for the real living of life they are like the background music we hear while shopping at a grocery store. Nor is this entirely wrong, since in terms of getting jobs, “fact knowledge” and “how-to knowledge” often seem, and often are, more useful. But the result of this is that knowing what something “is” seems more important than knowing what something “is like.” Or rather, we value knowing something scientifically (as we know “facts”) over knowing things metaphorically or analogically (as we know ethical issues). Given the nature of moral thought, it’s something of an ironic paradox that when engaged in argument most people think that because analogy depends for its force only on similarity, and not on identity, it’s a valid challenge to their opponent’s case to observe that he or she is arguing “by analogy.”

I summarize these commonplaces not to argue with them, but only to establish some sort of ground against which to contrast the Renaissance problem of knowing. For it was different in several important ways. First, for most “educated” Renaissance men and women the knowledge which mattered most was not “scientific” in our sense at all. Rather, it was quite straight-forwardly moral: those things which when known could provide insight on choices for action. That didn’t necessarily exclude the study of nature, but when one looked to nature, it was often as a book in which to read the universal order which governed all of creation, including the world of human affairs. Thus nature, in general, was very often not so much a subject of study as it was a means of study.

Further, knowledge in the Renaissance was in an important sense “bounded.” Early in the sixteenth century Sir Thomas More's friend Desiderius Erasmus wrote that virtually all “knowledge” could be found in the books of the Greeks and Romans. By this, of course, he didn’t mean that everything we moderns—or even he, the Renaissance philosopher—would call “knowledge” could be found there. That, even in a world that thought differently than we do about knowing, would have been absurd.

But Erasmus’ concept of knowledge differed from ours by focusing (after the Bible) first on the litterae humanae, the books of literature, history, theology, and moral philosophy. Thus when Erasmus locates all knowledge in the ancients, he only means that everything which seemed to him truly to matter was there. Other factual knowing, such as the best way to mine silver, or how to market wool in the low countries, would not have entered his consideration as the kind of knowledge an education would be aiming toward. Sapientia, in fact (for it was in Latin that this conversation would be carried out anyway), was the thing to be known: “Wisdom.”

In a spirit which matches that of his friend Erasmus, Sir Thomas More in his Utopia describes the far-reaching change in Utopian culture caused by the arrival on their shores of a library of classical texts. Those very quickly become Utopia’s basis for education as the Utopians enthusiastically embrace Greek and Latin letters. But that can happen only because everything the Utopians read in the classics only demonstrates that good farming, good living and good government are all matters whose principles had already been fully established in the ancient world, and which can now, for the first time, be understood fully by means of the artful discourses they find in the books handed down from ancient Greece and Rome. It was precisely in that rather abstract sense of a complete and bounded set of first principles that all wisdom could be said to be available through the books of ancient classical world. To the humanists, for a while, that seemed plenty knowledge enough.

Of course, there were other knowledges about, and as the century develops, “natural” knowledge more and more becomes both available and respectable. But even as the century ends, knowing nature is not for the most part the sort of knowing with which the educational establishment was much concerned. This is at least part of the point of Sir Francis Bacon’s late-century attack on the humanist educational system. In contrast to what seems to him to be humanism’s old-fashioned educational practice, he makes the radically innovative case for an education based on knowing nature, and knowing it on its own terms. Yet even Bacon, a man as convinced as any late sixteenth-century man that older modes of defining knowledge would have to change, had no real sense of how daunting was the task. For he imagined that the study and assimilation of the knowledge of nature could be accomplished in something like just 60 years. 400 years later, with science still madly researching thousands of mysteries, Bacon’s original estimate seems incredibly naive!

But returning to the sixteenth century generally, I’ve suggested that the knowledge which matters to humanists is ethical and bounded—literally by the corpus of classical texts. To these characteristics we can add three more. First, because the knowledge which matters to Renaissance humanists is that of the Bible and of the classics, it is also verbal, and especially, “textual.” It is stored in written words, in books, and is therefore available only to those who are trained such as to be able to recover them. It is not by accident that this is an age of education. The setting up of schools is a necessary consequence of the notion that the things people must know are available only through texts.

Second, knowledge for the Early Modern period is usually timeless. Adjustments of particulars are obviously necessary, since Rome is not London, but very often the humanist claim is that in all crucial ways, though admittedly with the not minor exception of the addition of Christian truths to those of the pagan classics (and in some cases the replacement of ancient truths with those Christian truths), the process of learning is largely to be one of the recovery of what was once already known.

And third, it matters greatly that knowledge is in an important sense inherently analogical. This is an age (like that before it) which found it easy to move from the natural fact that there were seven known metals and seven known planets to the observation that a lot of things came in sevens (like the seven days of the week), and that this number thus seemed to be a principle of cosmic—and therefore moral—order. Of course, other things came in other numbers, but again, the correspondence of different kinds of things in the numbers in which they occurred seemed a sign of an underlying structural likeness—indeed, a sign of God’s divine wisdom.

The fact of likeness itself (either of a characteristic, as the sun’s brightness to Gold’s brightness, or of a number, as with the seven metals and the seven planets) thus becomes both a structural principle of knowledge, and a means by which relationships between different things knowns are to be sought out and evaluated. If you know there are seven metals and seven planets and seven days, you can either look for other series of sevens to posit as correlate, or you can look for series of sixes or eights and try to reconceptualize them into sevens. Even more important, it becomes quite easy to see a cosmic relation between these (seemingly God-given) natural sevens on the one hand, and ethical sevens like the Seven Virtues, or the Seven Deadly Sins on the other.

Summing up these commonplaces, knowing for Renaissance Humanists is essentially:

1)bounded, static, timeless and universal
3)verbal and textual

If we now ask what follows from this for understanding Renaissance literature, it is clear that if analogy is a central feature of “knowing,” then literature—and indeed, any and all analogical discourse—finds itself precisely at the center of the knowledge enterprise. That’s very different from our own culture’s point of view. For as this century ends those of us who’ve committed ourselves to the study of books often seem sort of quaintly useless (“So just what exactly are you going to DO with that English degree of yours?”). But it has not always been that way. Renaissance poets and scholars found it much easier than do their modern counterparts to imagine that the work they did was central to the culture, and to expect that centrality to be properly recognized and attended to.

People have often wondered why the sixteenth century in England—a little island nation whose population then was only about half that of Washington State now—saw such a vigorous outpouring of “great literature.” At least in part that productivity must have started from the Elizabethans much greater sense of confidence that the knowledge they worked with in their writings might truly be taken seriously by those who had the power to rule the English world.


John Webster

If you are a poet, you are probably interested in making your language as effective as possible. You wish it to be condensed and highly significant, and to make it that way you look to deploy every possible means you can. You use the resources of metaphor, of diction and of sentence structure, of course, but poetry also has available to it what is called “meter”: the systematic and regular appropriation for artful effect of the natural rhythmic dimensions of language.

Understanding meter in English thus begins with recognizing the inherently metrical nature of the English language. Stress patterns are part of what makes English work; they occur both within words, and as intonation patterns for whole phrases or even sentences. These stress patterns are a necessary part of the language; indeed, when we change stress patterns, we often change meaning as well. Thus part of knowing English is knowing rules about how stress affects meaning—though these “rules” are of the hidden kind that we generally know without even knowing that we know them.


Think about the rhythm of words first. In any polysyllabic word, one or more syllables are stressed more than the others. Consider the following words:

contend; practice; contradiction; willingness; preposterous

In two syllable words the case is easy: for most of them, one syllable is stressed, and the other is not. In “contend,” for example, we stress the second syllable after not stressing the first--and to do otherwise would make the word nearly unrecognizable. That gives “contend” a particular stress pattern, but its unstressed-stressed pattern doesn’t fit every two syllable word. In the word “practice,” by contrast, we stress the first syllable, and not the second.

We can represent these facts about stress with a set of conventional marks: stress we indicate with an accent mark; unstressed syllables with a macron:

- /
con tend

/ -
prac tice

So much for the easy ones. Words of more than two syllables can be more of a problem, since each can actually have more than one stressed syllable; often in fact we even use more than one level of stress. This is a complicated dimension of spoken English, but we’ll assume just two levels of stress, what we will call “primary” and “secondary” stress. Consider the word “contradiction.” You can hear that the first syllable of that word is stressed more than the second, but you can also hear that the third syllable is stressed even more than the first. So this word actually shows two stress levels. The primary (or stronger) stress is on the third syllable, the secondary is on the first syllable. The word’s other two syllables—relative to the first and third—are unstressed. We can represent these facts with the accent mark (/) (primary stress), the macron (-) (unstressed), and a reverse accent mark (\) (secondary stress):

\ - / -
con tra dic tion

Each of the other words in the list above have other patterns:

/ - -
will ing ness

- / - - pre pos ter ous

So much for the facts of word stress. The thing that matters most here is to see that the fact that stress exists itself creates an opportunity to increase the density of one’s language by so selecting and ordering one’s words that we create a certain careful, even musical, regularity. Here is the opening of a poem (Poe’s The Raven) with a very strong rhythmic effect:

Once upon a midnight dreary,
As I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a volume of quaint and curious lore,
Suddenly there came a rapping,
As of someone gently tapping . . .

These are not the rhythms of spoken English; or rather, these are the rhythms of spoken English, but in words so chosen and arranged by the poet that they create a more or less regular, repeated stress pattern—a patterning that’s virtually never heard in conversation.

There are other general issues we might consider—like what happens with one syllable words. Are they always stressed? No, in fact they are not. For them we have to trust our sense of their role in the phrase or sentence in which they occur. If you think of a sentence as a set of ideas laid like tiles all in a row, you can think of its rhythmical structure as made up of “tile” words (primary meaning units) and “grout” words (secondary meaning units). For example:

The dog went to its dish.

If you read that sentence naturally, you’re likely to give stress to just three of its six one syllable words: “dog,” “went” and “dish.” Those differ from the other three words (“the,” “to” and “its”) by each having a primary function in the sentence--as subject, verb and object. These are the tiles. The other words, though still necessary for the sentence to make sense, can be thought of as helper words, secondary to the others--and thus (given that we aren’t going to stress every word) we give them less stress. These are the grout.

Finally, we also have sentence pattern stresses. Ordinary statements have one basic pattern; questions have another. As a statement, “He’s going” will end with an unstressed syllable. But as a question (“He’s going?”), that last syllable now must be stressed. Indeed, it is precisely by stressing it (along with a somewhat rising intonation) that a speaker turns what could have been a statement into a question.

Other things could be said, but with just these basic facts we can actually do a pretty good job of describing poetic meter. For even if you as a speaker don’t consciously know all these different stress rules, you nevertheless use them regularly, and you use them correctly. All you really need to do, then, is learn to listen to yourself. That has its own troubles: when you first start to listen you will find yourself slowing down, distorting stress because you are listening so carefully. But with some practice you’ll get past that, and you’ll be well on your way.


I quoted a fragment from Poe’s “The Raven” up above, a poem with a particularly strongly felt rhythm. But what Poe does there other poets also do, and one way to be a better reader of poetry is to learn to analyze these patterns both to understand how metrical effects are created, and to understand as well how and why poets vary their metrical patterns. For not all poems are as regular as is The Raven. Poe likes a very strong metrical, musical effect; other poets look to create less striking rhythms, and they do this by varying their lines ever so subtly, breaking up the regularity of their meter just enough to bring its net metrical effect close to—though not quite equal with—the rhythms of natural speech:

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

These lines (from a Philip Sidney sonnet) have a far less obvious rhythmic pattern than do Poe’s lines. Though they still are almost entirely regular in their rhythms, they don’t seem so, and Sidney accomplishes this simply by changing his pattern in the first line.

To be able to explain how Sidney manages this effect, we will have to do two things: first, we need to scan each line, marking the stressed and unstressed syllables—a process called (unsurprisingly) “scansion.” But second, we must then also analyze each resulting line into its underlying pattern. For what poets are really doing is imagining the sounds of their poems as sets of repeating units of either two or three syllables—units normally called “feet.” Most poems have either 4 or 5 such feet in each line; they are called “tetrameter” (Greek for “four-measure”) if they have 4 feet, and “pentameter” (“five-measure”) when they have 5.

Consider the following line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12:

When I do count the clock that tells the time. . .

That is a five footed “pentameter” line, and it is completely regular: its first syllable is unaccented, its second is accented, its third is unaccented, its fourth accented, and so on. The smallest repeating pattern—the basic measure for this poem—is thus of just two syllables: unaccented, accented. We can mark them off with a slash:

1 2 3 4 5

- / | - / | - / | - / |- /

When I do count the clock that tells the time. . .

But as I’ve already suggested, not all poetry is so regular. Look again at those lines by Sidney. Myself, were I to mark off the stresses in these lines they’d run something like this:

/ / | - / | - / | / / | - /

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still

- / | - / | - / | - / | - /

Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

I’ve put in slash marks to indicate basic feet again, but you’ll notice that not all of the feet are the same. Most are the same—indeed, most are of the same “unstressed-stressed” pattern we saw in Shakespeare’s line. And the second line is, again like Shakespeare’s, completely regular. But in the first line two of these units are different: the first and the fourth. They are called metrical substitutions—where a different pattern has been substituted in place of the basic “unstressed-stressed” pattern.

We’ve now got some different foot patterns—let’s give them names. In fact, let’s give names for all of the usual possible foot patterns in English—there are only six of them anyway. (The names are all from Greek, since that’s where we take a lot of our conventions from in the first place.)

- / | - / | - /

iamb: unstressed-stressed: When I do count the clock

/ - | / - | / - | / -

trochee: stressed-unstressed: Never buy a pickled pumpkin

/ / | / / | / /

spondee: stressed-stressed: Eight tall ships sailed eight miles

- - | / / | - - | / /

pyrrhic: unstressed-unstressed: In the tall grass was small mouse
(you can’t actually do these very well in a row!)

- - / | - - / | - - /

anapest: unstressed-unstressed-stressed: It was many and many a year

/ - - | / - - | / - -

dactyl: stressed-unstressed-unstressed: Terrible, terrible, pulsating

/ - -


By far the most frequent pattern poets have adopted in English has been the first of these feet: the iamb. And, since the five-footed line has also been very popular, perhaps the best known meter in English is iambic pentameter. That is, for example, the basic line for almost all of Shakespeare’s work. Iambic tetrameter is probably the next most popular, but (as Poe’s trochaic tetrameter in “The Raven” shows) others, too, exist.


One more rhythm-related concept. You’ll notice as you or another person speaks that you include various pauses—sometimes quite marked, others only very slight. These, too, are essential for meaning—indeed they are so essential that we have to provide for them even in written English. That’s really all that punctuation marks are: visible indications of what would be signifying pauses if we were listening instead of reading. Thus we have a strong pause at the end of a sentence, a less strong pause to mark other effects (when in writing we use a comma or a dash). In fact, it turns out that we make some sort of pause very often—usually every four or five words. That being the case, poets have found a way to use that fact too. Thus by carefully arranging words, they can also arrange pauses. Look at those two lines we had above from Sidney:

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

In the first of these two lines there are actually TWO relatively strong pauses, each marked by a comma. But even in the second line, where there are no commas, there is nevertheless a slight, but noticeable pause (as there will be in almost any five-foot line)—between “be” and “with.” Each of these pauses we refer to in scansion as a caesura--the Latin word for “pause.” We mark these with a double slash:

/ / || - / | - / | / / || - /
Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
- / | - / || - / | - / | - /
Wouldst brabling be with sense and love in me. . .

OK. Those are all the tools you need. Now let’s sum up. English poetry depends upon meter: the systematic and regular appropriation for artful effect of the natural rhythmic dimensions of language. That’s a mouthful, but it boils down to three principles: 1) poets very often arrange their words so that they create regular stress patterns, 2) poets introduce variation in those basic patterns by occasional substitutions of a different foot pattern into the poem’s underlying dominant pattern, and 3) poets also make conscious use of the pauses we make in our speaking. And finally, to those three principles we should also add an overriding caution: scansion is not an entirely exact science, and not every reader will scan every line in exactly the same way. That’s OK. But even with a little disagreement, we’ll still see eye to eye on most things. We’re aiming not for perfection—just agreement on the main points.


That seems a lot to keep track of, so why do it? Because although the main purpose of adopting patterns is simply to create a kind of musical backdrop against which to play out the reading of the poem, and although the main purpose of substitutions is usually only to keep the poem from getting TOO regular, thereby sounding sing-song and nursery-rhyme-ish, poets can also use metrical patterns either to emphasize words and phrases they want you to pay special attention to, or to create other special sound effects to make their verse more lively or more meaningful.

Let me end this with a demonstration. One of the early masters of metrical effect was Philip Sidney; below is a poem in which he uses almost every metrical trick he knows. He’s been writing a whole series of poems to a woman he’d like to love him; she has so far not taken him very seriously, only within the last sonnet or so having granted him a single and no doubt very chaste kiss. So in this poem he tries again, first declaring that he has never been a traditional (and thus boring) poet (conventionally supposed to have drunk from the muses’ sacred well at Aganippe), nor has he sat in the shade of Tempe (a valley sacred to Apollo); indeed, he says, he’s not much of a poet at all. He doesn’t even steal lines from others. So why, he goes on to ask, does it turn out that he can in fact write good poems? Only, he claims, because Stella has kissed him; she alone is the cause for his inspiration. That, at least, is the gist. But now read this poem aloud, and listen to what Sidney does to make it come rhythmically to life:

I never drank of Aganippè° well, °A spring sacred to poetry
Nor ever did in shade of Tempè? it; °
A wooded valley associated with poetry
And Muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit.
Some do I hear of Poets’ fury tell,
But God wot,º wotº not what they mean by it; °
knows; know
And this I swear by blackest brookº of hell, °
I am no pickpurse of another’s wit.
How falls it then that with so smooth an ease
My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow
In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?
Guess we the cause. “What, is it thus?” Fie, no.
“Or so?” Much less. “How then?” Sure thus it is:
My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss.

Before you look at how I would scan the poem, take time to read it aloud. Notice how regularly it begins. In the whole first quatrain there is only one metrical substitution. But then notice how irregular the meter gets in the second quatrain, especially in line 6, as Sidney uses sound and meter comically to pretend to have descended into a kind of poetic “fury”—a kind of madness Plato says poets are prey to. But then note how smooth and easy the meter becomes in lines 9, 10 and 11—only once more to become broken up with caesuras and metrical substitutions in lines 12 and 13 as he again pretends confusion, now about the causes for his poetic ability. And then, finally, note how line 14 yet again grows “sweet,” regular, calm and charming, as if to demonstrate by meter alone the empowering effect of Stella’s kiss. (I’ve underlined all the irregular feet.)

Astrophel and Stella: 73

- /|| - / || - / | - / || - / ||
I never drank of Aganippe well,

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
Nor ever did in shade of Tempe sit;

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
And Muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;

/ / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit. 4

/ / || - / || - / | - / | - / ||
Some do I hear of Poets’ fury tell,

/ / | / || / | \ / | - / | - / ||
But God wot, wot not what they mean by it; 6

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,

/ / | / / | - || - | - / | - / ||
I am no pick-purse of another’s wit. 8

- / | - / || - / | - / | - /
How falls it then that with so smooth an ease

- / | - / || - / | - / | - /
My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow 10

- / || - / | - / | \ / | - / ||
In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?

/ - | - / || / || - | - / || / || / ||
Guess we the cause. “What, is it thus?” Fie, no. 12

\ / || / / || / - || / / | - / ||
“Or so?” Much less. “How then?” Sure thus it is:

- / | - / || - / | - / | - / ||
My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss. 14


3. Reading Spenser

As  we begin Spenser’s Faerie Queene, I offer you three principles for reading the poem:  Patience, Looseness, and Reflection. 

1.   Patience.  If Shakespeare is a dramatic writer, offering representations of actions we interpret by supplying all the nuance of character and motive implied by what his characters (or, in the sonnets, what his speaking voices) say, Spenser is an undramatic writer—almost never asking that you seek complexity of motive for what any one character does.  Spenser’s complexity is thus of quite a different kind from Shakespeare’s.  It is something that develops only gradually, as Spenser puts first one concept, and then another, and then another, and then  another into play.  And as those issues accumulate around his central concepts (Holiness and Truth in Book 1; Chastity and Friendship in Books 3 and 4), the complexity that develops from this conceptually additive process is embellished and “activated,” as it were, by the various  “loosenesses” of his language.  So Spenser develops meaning slowly.  A line goes by, then a stanza, then another stanza, and gradually small bits accumulate, but it is really only after getting deep into any one canto that one starts to see the larger picture within which the smaller rhetorical moments of various stanzas take shape.  And this is true for the large units of the Books as well:  only as you get deep into a Book does the larger analytic framework begin to emerge into which the cantos themselves fit.  What does that mean for new readers?  It means that in following Spenser as elsewhere in the world, Patience is a virtue! 

2.   Looseness.  Spenser’s is an “allegorical” poetry. That means that the elements of his story telling refer to significances beyond their literal selves.  “Una,” the heroine of Book 1, represents the “single—i.e., unitary—truth,” for example, and when she and the Redcross Knight enter the confusing wood in Canto 1, we should see this at one level as “truth” entering into “error.”  But that’s really only the beginning.  Spenser’s real interest is in putting readers in position to make connections, construct understandings, ask questions about psychological, philosophical, or ethical issues connected to his main topics.  But he is NOT interested in developing character, or in narrative and/or descriptive consistency.  So his narration is “loose” in the sense that it has lots of “loose” ends—places where (from a dramatic point of view) the poem seems inconsistent. 

And just as the narrative is “loose,” so too is the language.  A word can mean more things than one.  Of course, a word can also have different meanings and implications and thereby create interpretive tension in Shakespeare, but Spenser often puts his words or sentences together in ways so loose that lines take on quite different meanings depending how you choose to interpret them. Those ambiguities in turn put you as a reader into situations where you must make your own interpretive judgments to complete the meaning of Spenser’s text.  Some of his typical loosenesses: 

a.  orthographic and etymological play:  Spenser spells words in such a way as to invoke secondary dimensions.  Redcross is described as one “dressed in mayle”—a spelling just enough off “mail” to invite a pun on “male.”  Or, Redcross is on a great  adventure “bond,” playing on the sense of “bond”—a promise undertaken—along with the narratively required sense of “bound.”  (But do be careful:  not every looseness is significant.  You are getting good at reading Spenser when you begin to get a sense of when and where to follow up on the loosenesses you will see.)

b.  referential looseness of pronouns:  pronouns often float between two different characters, thus inviting you to apply the sentence predication not just to one character, but to both (or at times even more).  This trick always has the general force of reminding readers that Spenser’s narrative isn’t finally ever simply about two characters, but rather is about a single mind confronting its own many dimensions, though often the pronoun confusion will offer a more local irony as well. 

c.  dangling modifiers:  again a reference problem, Spenser often leaves  adjectival and adverbial phrases dangling, attachable to more than one syntactical antecedent.  Notice the syntactical looseness with which the last line of this quatrain floats almost unattached: 

By which he saw the ugly monster plaine,
Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsome, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.

The immediate antecedent for this last line is “womans shape”—and taken in that sense the line raises a question about how one  is to read “womans shape.”  Are women in this poem thought of inherently as this line describes them?  Is this how RCK sees Error, and by extension all womanhood?  Worse yet, is this something Spenser himself would say?  Or does the phrase float back syntactically to modify “the ugly monster,” which, by this reading, would be “lothsome” precisely because its mixed shape  so completely deforms the idea of “woman”?   From that perspective it wouldn’t be “Woman’s shape” which Spenser’s logic calls loathsome, but the deforming of woman’s shape by synthesizing it with the notion of serpent—a common enough (and vile and filthie and foule enough) notion, since many an Elizabethan tract (and even a few modern ones) would indeed have seen women as inferior and sinful beings, defining them through the biblical account of Eve and the serpent.  The point of the looseness here, though, seems to be to offer readers a way to entertain both these ideas at once, thus complicating our sense of Redcross’ struggle with Error.  So which of these readings is right?  which is the “error”?  and especially, what is it like to be put in a position of not really knowing for sure?  How is the indeterminacy itself Spenser’s way of making us feel something of what it is like to be in “error,” conceptually “wandering” (which is what “error” actually means in its Latin root) about, not knowing for sure which syntactic path to follow? 

d. floating quotations:  Spenser often includes lines spoken which cannot easily  be attributed syntactically to a single speaker.  Instead, they too seem to float. The most famous of these are speeches between RCK and Despair in Book 1, Canto 8, but they happen frequently. 

e. epic similes:  extended comparisons in which an apparent likeness is deflected either by an actual unlikeness or by some  sort of alternative likeness to create an unexpected obliquity of comparison.  Thus the RCK, standing in a vile swamp of  monster muck,  is compared to “a gentle Shepherd  in  sweet eventide” around whose head swirls “a combrous cloud of gnats.”  But that offers us what is by no means an obvious “likeness.”  How can a cloud of gnats that (the narrator also tells us) “him could  not hurt at all”) be like the dragon’s flood of stinking vomit?  In fact, this is a simile whose un-likeness becomes a reminder that, despite the physical terms in which the battle before us is being rendered, the referent for the struggle is really not a knight standing in vomit at all.  Rather the struggle is between a mind and its effort to understand something clearly through a fog of threat and misunderstanding.  It is a representation of the mental struggle in which one’s capacity to see “truth” is clouded by very many kinds of mis-understanding and error, and where one is perhaps most endangered not by anything  physical, but by the most trivial-seeming of thoughts:  conceptual “gnats” which deflect thinking and thus lead one into error by interfering with the clarity of one’s (mental) vision. 

f.  narrative contradiction:  1.1.4 describes Una for us, but only in such a way as to make almost every line of the stanza  rewrite—and in doing so also contradict—the picture with which we enter  it.  She begins as a formulaic woman on a superlatively white  ass, who is then first rendered as even whiter than the ass.  Yet after the first two and a half lines have invited us to picture her shining countenance in this way, we then read that we cannot actually see her, since her face is covered by a low wimple (an old word for “veil”).  But then, as we re-see her yet again, now in a wimple, Spenser’s next  line re-writes her description once more as he tells us that “over all a black stole she did throw”!  That’s four different, mutually conflicting descriptions of the “faire lady”—after which Spenser then abandons his external description altogether, to describe instead her  inner  state—“seemed [with a pun on “seamed”] in heart some hidden care she had.”  And so on.  Of course, all of this is a way of complicating our vision of “truth”—which always in Spenser’s world, as ‘simple” as it seems, is pretty much always complicated and veiled, ‘seamed” up where it cannot actually be ‘seen” at all. 

3.  Reflection.  With this word I want to suggest two things.  The first is that the point of reading Spenserian poetry is to engage in analysis and thought about the concepts by which we  organize our lives.  Spenser’s is essentially a philosophical poetry, a deeply conceptual poetry, and not a poetry of dramatic observation and representation.  Of course, Shakespeare, too,  invites reflection, but his methods are quite different from Spenser’s.  Thus Spenser does not place characters in dramatic situations in order that we may (as we very often do in reading Shakespeare) use their actions as models to judge against or compare with our own.  With Shakespeare we can imagine what it would be like to fall in love as Rosalind does in As You Like It, or, like Lear, to feel badly treated by our ungrateful children.  Sympathies and antipathies for or against characters are very often starting points for reflection in Shakespeare. 

But with Spenser we cannot imagine what it would be like to be physically under attack as the Redcross Knight is by the dragon Error, since Error isn’t an external being in the first place.  Spenser’s referents are mental and conceptual; though he uses narrative as the means by which to introduce his reflections, that narrative is virtually always only a means to a conceptual end, not a mimetic representation of how human beings might ever think and act in the world. 

But if Spenser’s poetry is conceptually reflective, it is also reflective in that word’s etymological sense:  his verse “bends” (Latin “flecto”) “back” (Latin “re-”) upon itself.  I mean by this that Spenser’s poetry is cumulative.  As you make your way through it, you find yourself  recycled back into concepts treated earlier, but now in a new way because you will have a more complex conceptual structure within which to read.  When you reach the end of Book 3 Canto 1, for example, you see Malecasta and Britomart, the main characters of that Canto, represented in a kind of emblematic tableau displaying two very different notions of the “feminine”—one fainted dead away, the other upright, sword in hand, actively defending herself against the “envie” of all those who surround her.  But though interesting in its own context, as two quite different ideas of what it means to be “chaste” (Book 3 is the book of Chastity, after all!), this tableau also replays for us a similar moment in Book 1’s first canto where the RCK is offered two notions of the “feminine” in Una, on one hand, and Error on the other, the first pure and faire, the second demonically sexualized.  Now, Spenser doesn’t require that you remember  Book 1 as you read Book 3, but you will enrich your reading of Book 3 if when you reach the Malecasta-Britomart tableau you can remember that earlier tableau, for as the second tableau invokes the first, it offers both a parallel and a contrast, and thereby once again invites you to further complicate an already complicated idea.

4. From Private to Public: Chastity Becomes Friendship

            As Book 3 ends, and as Book 4 begins, the subjects for reflection the Faerie Queene offers you switch from an allegory of inner psychic forces to relations among others, from the private to the public.  For this is now the book of Friendship, and Cambell and Triamond are the book’s title-heroes.  Yet for all but one of the first six cantos Britomart seems to retain a hold on the title of real hero; until her Quest finishes in Canto 6, "friendship" still remains a sub-theme to "chastity." 

            Early on, at least, the real difference between the two books may simply be that the center  of Spenser's reflections about love and desire moves from the individual (so often in Book 3 the allegory focuses problems which arise from the way single minds are moved by desire) to the social, and though Busyrane seems about as bad an evil as one could find, the landscape for the first five cantos of Book 4 gets, if anything, bleaker, as Spenser now imagines a social world just as low on understanding of itself as a coherent social order as individuals in Book 3 were low on understanding how to organize their internal psychic energies into productive action.  Canto 1 once again divides Britomart and what she represents from others; the first half of the canto recalls Canto 1 of the Book we’ve just read, the episode of Britomart’s brief stay at Malecasta’s Castle Joyeous), and then in its second half begins what is pretty much a parody of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims.  It is parody because as Spenser’s knights assemble one by one, they do so as if by random.  These are knights without much sense of purpose, just inhabitants of a set of direction-less, empty lives, who act for misconceived motives, and whose one constant is that none of them can abide anyone else’s seeming to have direction.  Stanzas 13-5 make a nice locus for the canto's looking back to the world of Book 3; stanza 23, 36 and 43 are good at locating parodic issues of the Canto’s second half.   

            Canto 2 continues Canto 1’s accumulation of pointless lives, all active, yet with nothing beyond courting the False Florimel as a sense of purpose (stanzas 16-18 make a nice commentary on that process) until the arrival in stanzas 25-7 of news of Satyrane's tournament.  That creates a goal (even if an artificial one) in the middle of this existential landscape, and the pilgrimage now has a place towards which to move.  Meanwhile, the group has been joined by a new foursome, Cambell and Cambina, and Triamond and Canacee.  These pairs are offered as models of friendship, though they strangely and disconcertingly seem to fit in quite well with the burned out, cranky, and wandering rest of this rout.  That leads to Canto 3, the story of how these friendly couples managed to meet.  It is a truly bizarre canto, and there is I think no more deeply ironic point in The Faerie Queene.  For the canto offers a myth of the origin of friendship which is truly horrendous.  I see it as an anatomy of despair, and its invention of Friendship as the only imaginable solution.  Epic similes here particularly repay attention, but so does Cambina's arrival and resolution of the conflict. 

            Finally, Canto 4 brings you to Satyrane's tournament.  It's pretty good just as bloody battle, but it's also good at representing a world wildly whacko about how and why it organizes itself.  This (and the opening of Canto 5 as well) give you what often seem to me the Superbowl stanzas.  Spenser’s mode is again parodic, though seriously so:  these stanzas’ critique of a culture of contest and division is unrelenting and biting, even if also filled with comically ironic moments. 

            Canto 5 concludes the tournament fiasco, and Scudamour's arrival in the house of Care offers a human response to it.  He is a sympathetic figure, and he is horribly wounded by the tournament's moral logic.  The way his depression is rendered here makes perfect sense:  so depressed would you too be if the world really were as bleak as what we see in Canto 4 and early Canto 5. 

            Finally, Canto 6 is the conclusion to Britomart's quest, but, as usual, it's unusual.  It obviously looks back through the 17 cantos that precede it and invites you to tie the whole set of cantos up.  It is Spenser's version of Shakespeare's move to re-order.  I’ve written about this canto in “Chaste Directions”—you can read there, especially in parts 4 and 5, my sense of the work that canto does. 


Lovely Thoughts:  Romantic Love in

A Woman Killed with Kindness.

            A Woman Killed with Kindness is an extraordinary play, and it should not be surprising that, unlike almost all other non-Shakespearean Tudor plays, four hundred years after its writing it is still being staged.  Its bleak, middle class domestic wasteland has been attractive to the age in which God died (for a while, anyway).  But A Woman Killed with Kindness also repays attention as another of those Elizabethan works that deal with matters of  love, exploring the power of desire as a transformational and civilizing social agent.  The Faerie Queene is the most enlivening of these romantic-love-themed works, perhaps, with its vision of a society redeemed, even reconfigured, through love.  But though Spenser is pretty good at imagining ways in which the desire we often identify with love can go wrong, Spenser does not finally imagine that Romantic love—once found and declared—will turn out to be insufficient and un-transforming.  Love is for Spenser the thing which purifies mere desire and civilizes our otherwise desire- and ego-driven selves. 

            But Spenser’s enthusiasm for romantic love is not the whole of the debate, and A Woman Killed with Kindness takes the matter further than does The Faerie Queene.  For two subjects arise here that haven’t in other works we’ve read.  The first is the failure of desire-as-love to prove transformingly purifying.  Though we begin with the celebration of the unity and even equality (if only figurative) of Anne and Frankford in their new marriage (1. 65-72), whatever magic love is claimed to have produced wanes by scene vi, only to be replaced by a new “romance,” now very clearly argued as destructive of the “frank” and generous relation Frankford and Anne’s marriage seems to have represented.  So we can imagine that although at some time before the play begins Frankford in his wooing of Anne probably “of his wonder” made “religion,” and though Anne, too, as we read lines 37 ff of scene 1, seems transformed no less than Spenser declares Britomart to be in Book 4 of The Faerie Queene, that transformation has only a certain amount of staying power.  In this doubting of the value of romantic love many in the 20th century concurred, even though western popular culture since the Renaissance has more or less enshrined romance as one of its primary cultural values.  Actor Mickey Rooney was a great example of someone who spent most of his life trapped (from his point of view) in that value:  having married eight times(!), he finally declared that one should never marry for love.  Rather, he said, you should marry your best friend.  He was an especially slow learner, perhaps, but in that he was not (and still isn’t) alone. 

            The second subject that doesn’t arise elsewhere but does in this play is that of marriage.  This is a marriage play, by which I mean that unlike so many romantic comedies that end with a marriage, this one begins with a marriage.  (Of course, it also, in a very understated fashion, and quite strangely for a “tragedy,” sort of ends with one as well, as the sub-plot’s Susan and Sir Francis mention the fact of their just accomplished off-stage marriage as they enter for the final scene).  So the real subject of the play’s main plot is the situation of marriage—married life itself.  OK, so you get married, the plot’s premise declares.  Then what?  As it turns out, this is a question largely unexplored in Western literature—at least before the last half of the twentieth century.  We have thousands of comedies, mysteries, and melodramas about romance, but few plays or novels about marriage.  This is one—and a very early effort, at that (Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue is another of the early efforts).  And whether consciously or not, this play paints a pretty bleak picture of what the conventional relations between married people may well devolve into.  It’s sketchy to be sure, but the question arises by indirection if not direction:  why would Anne find herself so easily swept away by Wendoll’s cliché-filled seduction?  We’ve been told earlier that she is educated and clever, that she was a lively person before marriage.  Yet what little we see of her after the marriage is characterized by absence and submission, not educated cleverness.  Though Sir Charles in the first scene describes her as the “equal” of her new husband, her own words in that scene argue the falseness of that romanticized view.  As her brother says, she shows herself at her wedding to have become “meek and patient”—and one might guess, after a couple years of this existence (when we see her seduction she seems already to have borne two children who are later called in as witnesses to their mother’s sinfulness), pretty bored as well. 

            More specifically, marriage has made her pretty much a non-person.  Marriage has in fact, I shall claim, shorn her of her single power—that very power which The Faerie Queene romanticizes:  the power of beauty to incite male desire—and in doing so it has left her at risk to become subordinated and colorless.  Not that Anne can no longer be desired, of course—only that that female power to incite male desire while remaining chaste now has no legitimacy, and therefore (unless she abandons her marriage vows) no force.  Her virginity has been given up, and though she is still “chaste” (as faithful wives and husbands will always be), this married chastity turns out to confer upon her much less power than unmarried chastity.  It makes her husband happy, but it also renders her a stereotypically self-sacrificing, disappearing “wife.” 

            So this play begins in effect where Spenser’s story of Britomart and Artegall’s romance ends.  Unlike Britomart, Anne actually marries, but in doing so gives up that erotic power-to-incite, and almost as if in consequence she also fades to near nothingness.  Though it is her play (it is she who is the “woman” of A Woman Killed with Kindness, after all), after her brief, if triumphant, moment in the first scene she first disappears from view altogether for the next two scenes, and then reappears only very briefly in scene 4 after Frankford’s opening lines on the perfections of his married life—perfections capped in his account by his possessing “a fair, chaste, and loving wife.”  Anne isn’t present for that bit of male self-satisfaction, and when she does finally enter she speaks only twice for a total of four lines in the whole of the scene.  Nor do the lines she does speak show her having power.  Indeed, the first two have her introduce someone else to tell the interesting news of Charles’ demise (typically she declines the opportunity to call attention to herself, to be an interesting tale-teller), and the second two declare her “modest” duty to limit her attentions to Wendoll—her husband’s newest fancy. 

Now, although he’s perhaps a little more complacent than we might like, Frankford himself isn’t the real problem.  He is probably as good a husband as this society can produce:  trusting, generous, loving (or at least, not philandering).  But only Jane Eyre’s Madwoman in the Attic is any more completely subordinated to society’s male-dominated hegemony than is Anne, even if in the few words she gets to speak she seems perfectly content to be so. 
            When we get to scene 6, however, Anne suddenly finds more to say, but only after her husband has left, and Wendoll announces that—despite the social convention that her married sexuality can no longer have power—he has in fact felt her power, and has been moved to risk all for love of her.  He sings her praises, promises her everything, gallantly (or perhaps shamelessly, since it turns out he doesn’t mean it—shamefully fleeing upon discovery rather than gallantly remaining to face the consequences) declares that “I care not, I,/ Beggary, shame, death, scandal, and reproach....”  In the event, of course, it is she who dies of “shame ... scandal and reproach” while he lives to love another day.  But as Wendoll’s illicit attentions bring Anne back to life in scene 6 after having been consigned by marriage to the role of household decoration and child bearer, the point is that the ease with which she is seduced seems only to emphasize how emotionally barren her married psychic existence has been.  Suddenly here’s a man paying attention, talking all that Petrarchan stuff about how much power she wields over his fate, declaring his readiness to die for her love, in just the language all those sonnets use.  Whether she ought to believe it or not, whether it is true or not, is in some sense irrelevant.  She needs to believe it, to act on it, because without it she continues as the empty vessel her society’s idea of marriage has led her to become, and that, now that she’s actually been given a choice, is impossible. 

            Which leads us to the other issue this play stirs rather forcefully into the romantic love and marriage debate:  the asymmetry of gender relations.  Not just in scene i but elsewhere as well love is represented as an equalizing power.  Not just is Anne allegedly the equal to Frankford, but so in the sub-plot is Susan to Sir Francis.  But this is the whole sticking point: were these characters truly equal there would be no play.  For of course there is no equality here—and it is not enough to say, “Well yes, but in those days they didn’t believe in that sort of thing.”  No, on the whole they didn’t—just as some of us, in our actions, at least, if not in our pious declarations, and even with the advantage of four centuries of increasing feminist objection, don’t either.  But some of them did know enough to know better.  They could and did imagine ways of erasing difference in status.  Spenser’s imagination is perhaps most fecund about these things:  Britomart, though impressed with Artegall’s looks once Glauce has raised his beaver, doesn’t actually stop fighting or give up her notion of defeating him utterly until she hears his punning name:  “Soone as she heard the name of Artegall,/ Her hart did leape, and all her hart-strings tremble”—it’s a nice Spenserian looseness.  Only when the religion he has made of romantic love explicitly includes the notion of “egality” does Britomart drop the masculine role she has assumed (and the threatening, phallic sword she wields) and instead play female to his male. 

            In A Woman Killed with Kindness you get a similar language of gender equality, but embedded in a dramatic situation in which the reality is completely different.  Indeed, that reality compels us to imagine not an erasure of the difference in status between husband and wife, but a more or less complete erasure of Anne’s identity as an independent agent.  If Anne is described as Frankford’s equal in scene i, even momentarily, the language also represents her as so subordinated to Frankford that she has become no more than a dependent shape to her husband’s person—“a chain of gold to adorn [his] neck”(1. 64), as Sir Charles puts it.  And the punishment meted out to Anne for having allowed herself to feel powerful once more is perfectly expressive of this aim.  While Wendoll’s punishment is to be left to feel guilty (and this in a play where Sir Charles has been thrown in prison for debt—a much tougher penalty than anything Wendoll the seducer-adulterer suffers), Frankford’s “kindness” is to shear Anne of every vestige of identity she might ever have claimed to have had as his wife (13, 157ff) and to place her in a patronizingly “kind” country house prison.  Again like Bronte’s Rochester, who places his madwoman wife in the Attic and then attempts to prevent Jane’s learning of who she really is, Heywood’s Frankford un-names his wife, strips his house of any remnant of the life they led together, and locks her up, a no one in a no place.  And she, chastened by the enormity of her sin, not only accepts this as what true virtue requires, but finally even tearfully earns a death-bed “re-marriage” to Frankford.  Yet the price of this reconciliation is nothing less than her own disappearance from the face of the earth.  Her husband does indeed mourn her passing, but he never for a second attempts to prevent her dying.  Indeed, she has a particular sort of appeal to him, for he falls in love with her as the play ends.  But what is it that so touches his heart-strings here?  It can no longer be her beauty. He says he is moved by her true repentance.  But perhaps the real reason is that she has so completely destroyed her own power.  No longer a beauty, she hasn’t even power enough left to blush as her death scene begins!  Is it the penitent she, or is it the safely powerlessness she, that re-attracts him now?

            So we have a play which applies pressure to notions of romantic love, orchestrating a tale in which the putative power of love to transform selves and recreate men and women as equal is countered by other social imperatives, thereby revealing the way the powers that love confers on one are not just transitory but also compromised by deeper and more powerful forces.  In the world of this play, as in Mickey Rooney’s, love doesn’t necessarily last, nor does it always make us better, more generous or more humane. 

The Elizabethan Age Portfolio

A portfolio for a literature class is like many other portfolios: it is a collection and display of the work you have done, together with a reflective essay describing your experience in the course. This project thus offers you a chance to review your quarter's work, as well as to put that work into some kind of narrative perspective. Your portfolio should include:

1) A detailed listing of the contents of the Portfolio.

2) All of the writing you have done for this class over the course of the quarter. (These should be the copies with my comments on them.)

3) A two to three page Self-Reflective Essay.

The Self-Reflective essay should be about your experience in this class. You should prepare for it by reviewing your writing for the quarter, but the actual essay may take a number of forms. It may, for example, discuss the writing you have done this quarter, describing what you take to be your work's strengths, how they may have changed over the course of the term, and anything you think you still might be able to improve. Or it may be a narrative of your experience in this course: why you took it, what problems it presented to you as it progressed, and what you did to address them. Or it may discuss how your attitudes about reading Renaissance literature have developed, changed, or not changed during the quarter: what were you thinking when you came in, and how has that changed in the ten weeks since?

However you choose to set it out, the object of the exercise is to have you review your experience in the course, to think about that experience, and to do something towards evaluating and making sense of it.

The portfolio counts for 60 points of the course grade; I will evaluate the daily assignments included in the Portfolio on the basis of completeness and quality of involvement (30 points total). The essay I'll evaluate on the basis of responsiveness and thoughtfulness as follows (30 points total):

Fully responsive and thoughtfully undertaken = 30
Responsive but less completely thought through = 20
Marginally responsive, or not well thought through = 10
Unresponsive = 0

The Portfolio should be submitted in a large mailing envelope. Its presentation should be neat, ordered, and careful. To have it returned, be sure to address it and to provide postage sufficient for the thirty pages or so you will have submitted.


7. John Webster on John Webster: The Duchess Dies

DUCHESS: Dispose my breath how please you, but my body
Bestow upon my women, will you?


DUCHESS: Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength,
Must pull down heaven upon me:
Yet stay, heaven gates are not so highly arch'd
As princes' palaces; they that enter there
Must go upon their knees. Come, violent death,
Serve for mandragora, to make me sleep:
Go, tell my brothers, when I am laid out,
They then may feed in quiet.

This is the Duchess’ last exchange—she dies immediately after she speaks this last line. So it has a pretty important function in the play, working to give us Webster’s last picture of who she is and what she stands for in the drama’s moral calculus. We arrive at these lines after a whole series of scenes set up in such a way as to belittle her, make her plead helplessly for mercy—behave, from her brothers’ point of view--as women are supposed to. For that is a big part of her “crime.” She has not been “womanish” enough. Rather she has been commanding, generous, self-controlled, loving—a woman “man-ish” enough to command herself and others well. So they have been doing their best to abuse her out of that stance, since her humanity so obviously stands as a rebuke to their own self-interested and power-hungry selves.

In the immediately preceding lines Bosola has continued this effort to frighten her—speaking himself like the madmen who were earlier set loose in her room, and then telling her he will be killing her. She responds in these lines, however, not with the sort of lines the brothers would have her speak—lines of fear, apology, terror. She speaks not with tears, or begging, or any sense of fear, but by taking control of the situation rhetorically and morally. Even if she cannot stop her executioners’ actions, she can write her own lines, define her own way of acting and speaking in this strangest of dramas.

She begins by more or less giving them permission to kill her: “Dispose my breath how you please,” she says, ending the line by asking, “will you?”—a question that extracts an answer, and in effect a promise, from them. Again, she has very little power here, but the extracting of even so small a promise as this shows her both dignified and able to exert a certain amount of control over what is happening.

But that request is only her first command. She continues with more force as she then strikingly and directly says “Pull, and pull strongly…” Webster has her choose a physical verb, “pull,” thereby suggesting that instead of being afraid of what is about to happen, the Duchess can engage it with a kind of instructor’s earnestness. She describes the action they will take as they strangle her, but doing so by giving us a vivid image of their heaving on the cord around her neck—an image she repeats with emphasis. So she has no fear of visualizing what is to come, and in her language she again takes a kind of command, actually instructing them on how best to do their job.

But it turns out she has a more complex thought than simply that they should pull strongly enough not to botch the whole execution, for she then goes off in a more metaphysical direction: “for your able strength must pull down heaven upon me.” Here she indirectly invokes the notion of God overseeing all, and in effect threatens his vengeance for this crime with the idea of all of heaven coming down upon her and, implicitly, those who kill her, too. This is as well a remarkably physical image—a kind of catastrophic picture of the heavens falling right down out of the skies!

But then she takes control again: even as she has just invited them to begin their act, she then stops them: “Yet stay…” Again she uses an imperative to take a kind of imaginative command of the situation, but then as she kneels she compares the height of heaven to the height of this very palace: “heaven gates are not so highly arch’d / As princes’ palaces”—this dungeon has arches higher than that of heaven itself, she suggests—again indirectly commenting on the way this earthly kingdom swells itself up high with pride and presumption, while heaven, to which she now kneels, only asks humility. She then continues the commands: “Come, violent death”—again as if to take control of her own death, to order it even, but follows up the potentially frightening phrase “violent death” with the phrase: “make me sleep.” This is not a woman satisfyingly terrified with the brothers’ show of violence all around her. Rather she acts with a kind of simple human majesty—not so much because as Duchess she is nobility (she did marry and have children with a commoner, after all), but because she acts with complete self-possession and full human dignity in the face of the death we all must undergo. And even that can be seen as a function of these lines. Though we are unlikely to end our lives by being garroted, we will do well, these lines imply, if we face whatever death we do endure with at least as much composure as the Duchess shows here.

Her last line includes yet another instruction—this one more ironic than any before it: tell my brothers, she says, that when she is “laid out”—conjuring a physical image of her after death, stretched out on her bier—they will be able to “feed in quiet”—with that animalistic word “feed” suggesting the grotesque image of the brothers as scavenging animals ripping at her corpse. She thus ends with an image at least as ghastly and macabre as anything her brothers have thrown at her. She may not be able to stop them from killing her, but the command with which she orders these last few lines, along with the ironic intelligence that can wittily and satirically play with the circumstances of her murder, leave us with what might be the play’s strongest image of a commanding, human presence, shaming all of those from whose brute and wolfish power she cannot physically escape.



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